Wilde and The Tempest

I noticed that Wilde referenced The Tempest in The Decay of Lying. This struck my interest because The Tempest seems to reflect some ideas of the decadent movement. 

In The Decay of Lying, Wilde describes Shakespeare’s career as one that gradually steers away from focusing on style and opts instead for realism and freedom. He reminds the audience that “it is working within limits that the master reveals himself.” He then states that “we need not linger any longer over Shakespeare’s realism” before calling The Tempest the “most perfect of palinodes.” However, it is unclear in what way Wilde sees The Tempest as a palinode. While it could be interpreted as a palinode of the realist work described earlier, it could also be interpreted as a palinode to his stylistic work. I am more inclined to believe the latter based on the contents of The Tempest and Wilde’s view of art, though the organization of this passage could suggest the former. The Tempest switches between verse and prose depending on who is speaking. Caliban even switches between the two depending on his audience. In this way, Wilde could be criticizing Shakespeare for failing to work within a limited structure. 

Though Wilde may be criticizing this work, I find it interesting that this is not the first time we have seen him reference The Tempest. In the preface to Dorian Gray, which we read on the first day, he states, “The nineteenth-century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass.” In The Tempest, Caliban can be read many ways, but one interpretation of his character is that he represents raw human nature. With this interpretation, the line is read as humanity seeing themselves accurately in realism and despising what they see. 

While Wilde references The Tempest in these two works to make slightly different points, I find it fascinating that he has referenced it twice given the way that The Tempest could tie into the decadent movement. In The Tempest, nature is subordinated to magic and illusion as the powerful Prospero uses his magic (which could simply be interpreted as education) to conquer the island. Other characters fantasize about finding an untouched island to mold and fashion it to their liking, while Caliban, who is described as animalistic and inherently earthy, is constantly held captive by someone else. While it is certainly not the only interpretation, The Tempest can be read as a story about man’s dominance over nature. This certainly seems to be a central part of the decadent movement, which subordinates nature to man to the point that it bends at the will of art. Overall, I found this continued reference fascinating considering Wilde’s view of the relationship between nature and art.

American Stereotypes

What struck me the most about Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” was how aggressively American the United States Minister’s family was. One of the funniest bits in the story in my opinion was the childrens’ names, with the eldest named Washington, the daughter named Virginia, and the nameless twins called the Stars and Stripes. Wilde brought up American stereotypes in this story that I didn’t even know existed, such as when the family discussed the importance of the city of Boston and how they thought that the New York accent was much more pleasant than the London drawl.

When I first read the story, I thought the family being American was just a way for Wilde to make some jabs at Americans and comment on how their disposition is so different from British people’s. However, after reading “The Decay of Lying,” I think there are more layers to Wilde deciding to make this family American.

In “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde comments on, “The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals” (1081).

All these traits that Wilde mentions in “The Decay of Lying” are present in the Otis family, including the “crude commercialism,” which comes up when the minister name drops name-brand stain remover and lubricant. This leads me to believe that instead of being a family that exhibits some American stereotypes, the Otis family is a stand-in for all of America.

Believing in ghosts and hauntings requires a bit of imagination and fancy, but since the Otis family is American and is indifferent to poetics and has no imagination, they initially don’t believe a ghost is haunting Canterville. Even when the ghost is proven to be real, they are almost indifferent to the ghost’s attempts to scare them, except for when Washington and the twins torment the ghosts. The ghost and the family are in an odd sort of limbo with the ghost unable to leave and the family not being affected by the ghost. It is only when Virginia listens to the ghost that the situation is resolved. She is able to sympathize with him, listen to the prophecy, and walk with him to the Garden of Death. She isn’t indifferent to poetics and imagination which is why she is able to lead him out.

The Ameican family is able to survive because of their Americanness, unlike the British inhabitants before them. However, it’s Virginia’s combination of American ideals and being open to imagination that fixes things.

Oscar Wilde: The Theme of Morality and Ethics

Morality and ethics have been a common theme throughout Wilde’s works, as seen in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and even in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Especially with the story of Lord Arthur Saville, there is an atrocious lack of morality and remorse. Such lack of remorse and lack of consequences even after a murder are hid behind the idea of faith and purity. In a sense, because of his knowledge of his own fate, he sees that there is no possible solution but to carry out the action of murder so that he can continue a pure and unhindered life after marriage. Murder is an immoral action without question; however, Wilde offers the curious question of predestination and the effects of such. Convinced of his own fate, Saville commits what can be skewed as a just or at the very least, a merciful action. Wilde also adds in the important element of the “lie.” The action of murder and the determination to fulfill one’s fate was built upon a lie; such brings to question who is truly at fault. It’s interesting that Wilde leaves Saville unpunished for the act of murder and rather, supplies him with a happy ending abundant with family. On the other hand, Mr. Podgers is left as a victim of murder with no real indication of justice. While the one that had commited murder suffered no consequences and was given a happy ending, the one that had influenced the murder was left deceased with no hope for justice. Wilde seems to point at causation as the malevolent. Another interpretation of the story is centered around the theme of social class. It’s safe to assume that Saville does not belong to the lower class. He is entertained at parties and fashions a happy life with a wife and children. Perhaps Wilde was utilizing his character to point towards the uncomfortable truth that those of higher classes were able to commit immoral acts with no real consequences or repercussions.

Sensationalism and Satire

We have previously discussed some similarities between Wilde’s work and The Woman in White, the sensationalist novel by Wilkie Collins, and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” stood out to me exactly for that reason. The story definitely has the feel and themes of sensationalism, including several failed murder attempts with a variety of weapons and near misses with the police. But I think the reason the two feel so similar is not these plot points, but the voice of the narrator, Lord Arthur, and his quest to marry his lady love, Sybil Merton. This chase felt eerily similar to Walter Hartright’s goal to marry Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White. Both men have a certain stubbornness about their goals, and both have a wiliness to do illegal things in order to accomplish them. In Watler’s case, breaking Laura out of an asylum, and in Arthur’s, murdering Mr. Podgers.

However, in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” it appears that Wilde is satirizing sensationalism to some end. It is Arthur himself who decides he needs to murder someone else in order to marry Sybil, nothing else in the greater world of the story requires it. He believes that he must murder because he believes that the fortune that Mr. Podgers gives him is unavoidable, and he wants to protect Sybil from his murderous acts. The irony here is that in order to save his marriage’s future wellbeing, Arthur decides to start his marriage on a bed of murder and lies, not to mention that the whole scenario is based on the outcome of one palm reading! This is much different than the narrative of A Woman in White, where Walter, although he may not be perfect, is attacking a legitimate problem facing both his own goal of marrying Laura, but a problem for women at large. I find this twist in genre fascinating and am curious about how it would’ve been viewed by readers during Wilde’s time.

A Study of Duty: Wilde’s Subtitles

As I read “The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” I became interested and even confused at the short phrases under the title. For “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” it is “A Study of Duty” (168). For “The Canterville Ghost,” it is “a Hylo-Idealistic Romance” (193). After reading each of the stories, I wondered why Wilde used the specific words to place under the title to encapsulate the art piece; why did he even need to prescribe such short phrases under the short stories if the stories speak for themselves? In addition, I thought it was almost contradictory to offer these phrases to encapsulate the art piece if the aesthetes and decadence believe that art impresses rather than expresses; it is the individualism of the reader that art finds its beauty. By bestowing a phrase on a story, many will examine the story through that specific lens that the phrases offer. I attempted to see if the phrases underneath each title allowed me a newer perspective to think about the stories.

Like others have said in the blog posts, Wilde ironizes Calvinism and the idea that Arthur Savile is predestined to murder; although he is clearly the worst world’s murderer in his multiple failed attempts, he finally succeeds when he murders somebody who advocates for Calvinism, who Wilde portrays as the embodiment of predestination. So why didn’t Wilde include predestination under the title? I speculate that he possibly did not want to attack such Calvinist ideals directly. Still, I believe it is more likely that he wanted to examine duty as a whole in society. In class, we’ve talked a lot about how Victorians were mortified by the aesthetes and decadents’ beliefs in the individual and “art for art’s sake.” At the same time, the Victorians emphasized collectivism and duty to the common good. In “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” Wilde “studies” duty and questions its validity. Does one person even have a duty? Much like the victims that Arthur chooses at random (179), predestination operates on similar grounds, implying that duty is also arbitrary. The subtitle helps ground the story and its more significant implications. Still, I also think that Wilde telling us what the story is (a study of duty) goes against some of the aesthetes’ viewpoints because what if somebody does not interpret it as a study of duty?

“The Canterville’s Ghost” is largely an enigmatic story to me. It was my favorite of the two, but the phrase underneath is hard to reconcile with, mainly because I didn’t view Virginia and the ghost to be in a “romance.” If anybody else has an interpretation, I would love to hear it and hope we talk more about this in class!

Calvinism and ideas of predestination in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”

I found myself really enjoying Wilde’s short stories that we read for this week, particularly “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.” I think I found this one really striking because it made me think about the topic of religion and Wilde and the Aesthetes’ relationship to it. 

When Lord Arthur is told by the palm reader that he will commit a murder, he feels as though his fate is sealed, and that there is no way to escape it. He is destined to commit a grave sin. This reminded me of Calvinism and the idea of predestination, or that no matter what humans do in life, some are meant to go to heaven and some are meant to go to hell. This realization drives Arthur Savile into a panicked state of planning to murder his extended relative(s) in order to fulfill his destiny and move on with his life. I like how Wilde toys with comedy as the first attempt of murder fails, and his second becomes further comically tortuous to Savile as nothing seems to be working. It is only when Savile kills the palm reader that he can really move on. It is as though the palm reader is a representation of God or a leader in the Calvinist church, he is whoever is telling people that their fate is set. And, comically, the palm reader is a fraud! As though Calvinism itself is a sham.

This story indirectly showcases the ideas that Wilde had about religion. As we learned in class, Wilde believes in Catholicism, and other Aesthetes did too. But, I am still unsure exactly why Catholicism appeals to him. Is it because of free will… the freedom of agency in doing what pleases you? Is it because he sees similarities in the transformative power of the artist, like the transformative power of Christ? Is it because he replaces Christ with art? Is it a genuine spiritual connection that appreciates the ritualistic nature of Catholicism? I still have a lot of questions about Wilde’s relationship with religion that I look forward to hopefully answering as we continue reading.

Comedy in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”

When I started reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, I thought that this short story would be mainly focused on the theme of sorrow caused by the inevitability of murder and the supernatural loss of free will (Especially after this line on page 173: “he had become conscious of the terrible mystery of Destiny, of the awful meaning of Doom”). However, I found this story to be much more comedic than I previously had expected. Arthur’s strange sense of duty to the laws of chiromancy and his repeated attempts at murder were so ridiculous that I wholeheartedly agreed with Lady Windermere’s last exclamation (a response to Arthur’s assertion that chiromancy had given him Sybil’s love) that she had “never heard such nonsense in all [her] life” (192).

Much of the comedy seemed to come from the very character of Arthur. Wilde describes him as a man with “common sense;” however, Arthur’s actions seem to prove otherwise. I was shocked when he immediately accepted Mr. Podgers’ prediction that he would eventually kill a distant relative. This fortune teller did coincidently make eerily correct physic readings about some of the guests, but their validity could have easily come from doing prior background research about every person in attendance – rather than from an otherworldly source. In fact, Windermere even alludes to this possibility by calling Podgers “a dreadful imposter” later in the story (192). I would have expected Arthur to at least harbor a few doubts about the supposed inevitability of the murder (especially if he was rational with “common sense”); however, “life to him meant action, rather than thought,” and he impulsively decides to kill one of his relatives, so that he will not have to do this while married (178). Furthermore, when Arthur actually does think, he seems delusional as he even hilariously considers his plan of murder to be “his self-sacrifice,” which is ironic because he is not the one that will be dying. The above factors can be summarized as Arthur’s refusal to critically think about his situation, and this failure leads to many foolish and hastily planned murder attempts, which definitely heighten the comedy.

Skeletons in Virginia’s Closet

I thought “The Canterville Ghost” was hilarious. Or if hilarious is too strong, at least extremely amusing.  The interactions between the twins and the ghost, that it’s this big, brash American family that can’t be flapped by the spirit — there’s something so charming about the subtle reversals of expectation Wilde is working with. That humor however, is distracting from the more sinister aspects of the tale, which is something Wilde seems to have a talent for — trivializing or distracting from the sinister when it suits the story, a misdirection from the actual end of the tale. Focusing on the trivialized darker details, the crime of the ghost itself is quite interesting. When confronting Virginia near the end, the ghost explains his reasons for killing his wife and remarks that “it was purely a family matter, and concerned no one else,” (196) an interesting framing considering he’s most directly haunting another family. His wife couldn’t starch his ruffs properly and couldn’t cook so naturally he took family matters into his own hands. Though the ghost killed his wife, for seemingly very little, Wilde doesn’t seem to wholly condemn him for that action. His little domestic reasons for killing his wife, that make his crime seem particularly petty, distract from the ghost’s preceding point, “Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics” (196). In light of some of the reversals of the text, this then seems to be the most crucial and serious criticism Wilde is leveraging in this piece, a questioning of the rigidity of moral assumptions, and perhaps just assumptions in general. 

 Thinking further about the relationship of the ghost to his crime and the more sinister elements of the tale, I am also particularly intrigued by the end and some of the story’s final questions. The Duke says to Virginia, “you have never told me what happened to you when you were locked up with the ghost” to which Virginia replies that she has never told anyone and that the ghost “made me see what Life is and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both” (204). Nothing about that is singularly intriguing, until the Duke suggests that she’ll at least tell her children one day and Virginia just blushes.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what about that ending is so uncomfortable, maybe that her name is Virginia and something happened with the ghost that she’d blush to tell her children, but in some ways this unknown is the most sinister of all, the irresolution, particularly in regards to Virginia. Because of some of those outstanding questions this story is a good place to interrogate a lot of the questions that plague readers of Wilde’s work — what are we supposed to take seriously, can we take the story at its word, is it a reflection of our moral ethics or Wilde’s design that we sort of sympathize or at least lightly pity this murderous ghost, (amongst other questions)? It’s difficult to know where to stand at the end, what the story was trying to tell you (if anything at all), and some of that discomfiture is from Wilde’s clever uses of reversal, humor, and the cheap severity of your own ethics.

Wilde’s use of Parody in “The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”

What struck me the most about both “The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” was how subversive they were to two popular genres of stories, those being ghost stories and murder mysteries respectively. 

“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” very clearly mocks Victorian society, a culture in which everybody does what they feel they are supposed to do, instead of what they might want to do. This is reflected most in the titular character, who feels that, because a fortune teller foretells murder in his future, he must go about killing someone close to him, just to get the inevitable murder out of the way. Arthur never considers simply not murdering anybody, but instead allows others to command his actions for him. Through attempting to conform to external pressures, he ends up performing several vile acts, culminating in throwing a man off a bridge, killing him. Arthur feels no regret after this, immediately marries his fiancé, and lives happily ever after. I believe the story is also a commentary on how the upper class get away with everything, as Arthur attempted two murders and succeeded with a third and faced zero legal repercussions. 

“The Canterville Ghost” is quite clearly a satire on common ghost stories at the time, as the titular specter is far from an intimidating villain, but rather a bumbling fool. It seems significant that the ghost is haunting a house in England that is lived in by a family of Americans, and that said Americans are immune from his attempts to frighten them. To me, the ghost is a reflection, somewhat of Victorian values, as he feels it is his duty to spook and frighten the residents of the house, almost as if he is honor bound to do so. As Americans have different values, they are completely unfazed by the ghost, but instead attempt to rationally deal with the small amount of trouble he causes their family. I found it interesting that the daughter of the family, named Virginia in reference to both the state in which Europeans first journeyed to America and the Virgin Mary, served as the savior of the ghost, allowing him to abandon his duty and finally rest, after becoming one with nature. This seems to be symbolic of Wilde’s desire for all people to give up the stuffy customs of the day, and start living life at one with the world, and with oneself. 

What are Wilde’s thoughts on predestination?

While reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime I struggled to make sense of Wilde’s commentary on predestination in relation to the ideas we already talked about in class, particularly in “The Harlot’s House.” When Lord Arthur hears of his destiny to commit a murder, he thinks, “Could it be that written on his hand, in characters that he could not read himself, but that another could decipher, was some fearful secret of sin… Was there no escape possible? Were we no better than chessmen, moved by an unseen power, vessels the potter fashions at his fancy, for honor or for shame? His reason revolted against it, and yet he felt that some tragedy was hanging over him…” (165). The image of all of mankind moving around the earth as chessmen controlled by some supernatural force reminded me of the mechanical descriptions in “The Harlot’s House.” The dancers are described as “wire-pulled automatons” and “clockwork puppets” (lines 13 and 19). In both passages, Wilde presents the human condition as one that is entirely out of our control.

While this passage in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime probes our understanding of free will and reason, I could not help but think that the short story as a whole makes fun of the idea of predestination. The plot was predictable, especially in the ways that Lord Arthur tried to rush his fate and complete the crime in order to marry Sybil. I have read quite a few murder mysteries and suspense novels, and poisoning is one of the least effective ways to kill. Also, poisoning is more commonly used by women in literature, and in real life according to The Washington Post. The failed bombing is comical as well. The letter from Jane reveals it to be an “ingenious toy” that “looked so ridiculous, that James and I went off into fits of laughter… when we examined it, we found it was some sort of alarm clock” (179). What does it mean that Wilde portrays predestination so differently between Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House”? When we discussed predestination last week in the context of the “The Harlot’s House,” one of the main points we made regarded class distinctions, the idea that the poor are unable to resist the force of destiny that pulls them into the harlot’s house, but the rich instead partake because they are bored. Lord Arthur is clearly of the upper class, and he hears of his destiny at Lady Windermere’s extravagant reception. In the last lines of the story, when Sybil, Lady Windermere, and Arthur discuss his belief in chiromancy, Arthur says, “I owe to [chiromancy] all the happiness of my life” (183). Why does the hand of fate provide happiness to the rich and suffering to the poor? Lady Windermere says Arthur’s faith in chiromancy is absolute nonsense, and this perfectly captures Wilde’s views on predestination in both the short story and poem. Given Lord Arthur’s social status, he would have married Sybil and experienced such great “happiness” had simply chosen not to listen to his fortune and murder the chiromantist, yet the same does not apply to the impoverished visitors of the harlot’s house. However, this distinction between the predestination of the poor does not necessarily mean that Wilde is sympathetic to the lower classes. In The Decay of Lying, he discusses the poor as subjects in literature. Vivian says, “Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration” (1077). Reading the “Harlot’s House” as in conversation with Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, the effect is an indifference to specific details of father and instead an emphasis on how one behaves as it looms overhead.